Southern Somerset Local Foods Connection

Final Report for CNE12-095

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2012: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Paula Day
Maine Alternative Agriculture Association
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Project Information

Summary:

Maine Alternative Agriculture Assoc. (“MA3”) is working to create a local foods hub in southern Somerset County, Maine, a distinctly rural area with minimal urban outlets for small farmers wishing to market directly to consumers. The physical facility is in place to collect, store and do some value-added processing of local agricultural products. This current project, funded by SARE, is meant to move MA3 into the next phase of the effort and has two main components:

• Survey and meet with farmers to assess their willingness to grow or produce for the new enterprise which will develop new markets for their products; and
• Develop contacts with consumer groups, both in rural and in adjacent urban areas, and facilitate direct marketing of farm products via food clubs or other bulk-buying arrangements.

Project Objectives:

The objective of this project is to stimulate farm production in an area of Maine that currently has tremendous potential for agriculture – still open farmland, excellent soils, reasonable proximity to urban markets – but much of this valuable farmland is underused. The goal is to see some of this acreage in food production for Maine consumers. (Hundreds of acres with the potential for high-quality food production – vegetables, grains, pasture – are presently being kept open by the production of low-quality hay.) At the same time, the project seeks to engage more Maine consumers in the buy local movement.

The performance targets of MA3’s original proposal were comprehensive and ambitious. We have met some of them, failed some, and, surprisingly, achieved some notable accomplishments we had not remotely contemplated. Everyone at Maine Alternative Agriculture has worked hard to promote this project and we hope NE SARE will appreciate the sometimes surprising turns the project has taken.

Our original objective was to have six farms under contract and producing for a total of 100 food club buyers by the end of the project period, one year. We do not have those farms under contract but we are still engaged in the process: they know we are here to stay and willing to buy. We have the facility in place to aggregate, store and package their product and we have made the contacts with three adjacent communities interested in buying local products either through food clubs or by establishing a local outlet.

Our verification/evaluation plan for the project as submitted to SARE, and our accomplishments (and our on-going efforts) are itemized below.

April 2012 – Create Legal Documents

A simple farmer production contract and an MA3/Food Club supply agreement have been drafted. Copies are included in the supplemental materials submitted with this report.

May 2012 – Hire assistants, initial contact and sign-on for participating farms and potential food clubs.
We had hoped to hire two assistants who would work as needed throughout the entire project but found that impossible. For both farmer and potential food club contacts, we felt it was necessary to have personal who could discuss the local food issue – from production to costs to plate – on a professional level. We wanted farmers talking with farmers and, to a great extent, farmers talking with buyers. As we approached those people with the idea of working on this project, the response was pretty uniform: they would not commit to being hired for six months to a year but would be happy to be involved on an ad hoc level. This allowed us to hire farmers for particular stints: one with years of experience in vegetable production to talk with hay producers about what it would take to make particular sections of hay ground suitable for a vegetable crops; another with wheat production experience to visit potential small grain producers; another to talk directly with a Waterville group interested in forming a food club about a possible annual delivery schedule based on an annual growing schedule, for example.

Consequently, we contracted the work out as the project moved along. This allowed us to engage more people in the overall project and it allowed us to make use of various levels of knowledge and expertise.

We made initial contact with seven farms (Song Bird, Sweet Land, Richie, Harakiel, Hoskins and Hilton in Starks; Blue Ribbon in Mercer) to discuss the production possibilities for food buying clubs and continued this contact throughout the project.

We made initial contact with potential food buying clubs or institutions in Bangor (St. Joseph’s Hospital), Brunswick (Parkview Adventist Hospital), Waterville (working with the Sustain Maine citizens group), and the Starks community.

June – October 2012 – Anticipated monthly production/orders/sales

It became clear very early on that our initial plan – to be taking orders and encouraging production for the spring/early summer 2012 – was too ambitious. Initial contact with the farmers indicated equal amounts of interest and caution; they were eager to hear of the marketing possibilities and willing to consider growing to contract. But growing to contract is not common among smaller producers in this area and there was a definite reluctance to commit.

At the same time, we were looking for a very diverse array of products – mixed vegetables (from fresh greens to storage crops), pasture-raised poultry and beef – and we were looking for farmers who were willing, whether they were organic or not, to work with us on ways to assure our customers that the farming methods employed by our suppliers were eco-friendly, humane, safe and sustainable. We have even gone a little further and are asking the farmers we work with to commit to an effort to improve their soils to a level where we can justifiably assure our customers that we are striving to bring them the most nutrient dense products possible.

We only contacted farmers we believed would be amenable to these specifications and who, in many cases, were already engaged in healthy, holistic farm planning. They are all, without exception, interested in applying the concept of soils management for nutrient density.

And, except for poultry production, the farmers we talked with were already producing many of the varieties of product we knew we would need to supply potential customers.

To back up and to create the knowledge base we needed, we developed a schedule of six public meetings to discuss the project and to feature agriculture consultants, experts and practitioners (farmers, veterinarians, lawyers) who gave presentations on the practical aspects of a diversified local food system. (Please see enclosed materials for samples of brochures, mail-outs, etc.)

By inviting these landowners to a series of presentations on different sorts of agricultural production that might suit their land and labor and equipment resources, we tried to interest them in growing/producing for local consumers. At the same, we introduced them to the Maine Alternative Agriculture facility which can serve as both a collection/aggregation/storage center and a marketing medium for any new products they produce.

We brought soils and livestock consultants together with these landowners to assess the viability of these areas for food production:

• May 31, Mark Fulford on biological soils enhancements Part I;
• June 13, Dr. Robert Patterson on safe and humane livestock management;
• June 27, Diane Schivera on pasture raised poultry;
• July 11, Dr. Michal McNeill on long-term consequences of glyphosates in soils and livestock;
• September 12, two current documentary films on genetically modified organisms in agriculture;
• October 3, Mark Fulford on biological soils management Part II.

Two dozen farmers consistently attended these presentations with smaller numbers of consumers participating. Dr. McNeill’s presentation drew sixty-five farmers.

Additionally, Dr. McNeill, a soils consultant from Iowa, met with six individual farmers to assess their specific operations for the possibility of wheat, or other small grains, production.

These presentations covered sophisticated biological soils management, livestock handling and care, pastured poultry production, large-scale organic production, and farming without glyphosates or genetically modified seed and animal feed. The focus was on sustainable production methods, not exclusively organic, with a strong emphasis on building healthy soil.

Instead of a final fall harvest dinner we preceded each of these presentations with a social hour and a pizza/salad buffet – all from locally grown wheat, vegetables and meat products – prepared in the MA3 kitchen and baked in our wood-fired brick oven.

One long-term, model production/purchase relationship with an institutional buyer was established with the Pierce House, a residential home for the elderly in Farmington. Food safety was the first concern of the management there and the Director was under the impression that “local food” implied no safety standards in production and handling. Maine Alternative Agriculture was able to bring the Director to two of our farms to explain our commitment to food safety and to show her those standards in practice. She was particularly impressed with the production and handling of greens, assured of the cleanliness of the washing and handling process, and subsequently entered into an agreement with one of those farmers for weekly greens delivery that extended through December 2012.

October – November 2012 – Ongoing discussion w/potential food clubs/farmer suppliers

Eighty private households were surveyed for their feedback on buying local with overwhelmingly positive results. (Simple telephone questionnaire included with supplemental documents.) Follow-up meetings were scheduled for January and February.

MA3 worked with local farmers to develop the first-in-Maine municipal Agricultural Commission for the town of Starks. Our focus on the 21st century agricultural potential of this area has drawn the kind of attention and public awareness necessary to protect hundreds of acres of prime farmland from non-agricultural development.

We held meetings again with the potential institutional buyers mentioned above and contacted an additional three area school systems for inclusion in the project. We now have institutions willing to contract in advance for some fresh product (potatoes, onions, carrots and ground beef), and have farmers “on the brink” of putting some of their land into this new, wholesale production scheme.

December 2012 – March 2013 – Plan spring planting/production for food clubs

In January we met with Maine Farmland Trust to discuss our project, the available prime farmland in Starks, and the local foods facility MA3 has developed there. MFT agreed that the area consists of very high quality agricultural land, currently underused, and in need of protecting. The existence of the MA3 facility is the sort of “infrastructure” they like to see in order to justify their support of young farmers who wish to purchase land with MFT’s help – either through their buy, protect, sell program, through the outright purchase of protective easements or through financing assistance. Currently, they have purchased one local farm for resale with restrictive covenants and they are in the process of assisting a young farmer from outside of the area to purchase a farm adjacent to the MA3 facility.

This new focus on the area – by local citizens by means of the Agricultural Commission, by Maine Farmland Trust for preservation purposes, and most, excitingly, by young farmers who are suddenly looking at this region/community as suddenly the place to be in Maine for good land, reasonable prices (to buy or lease), supportive existing farmers willing to mentor, and for an outlet for their products, the MA3 project – is the success surprise of this past year’s endeavor.

In February and March 2013, we began to develop a community food club plan for Starks while working with local residents and farmers on the new Agricultural Committee. Because we were having difficulty convincing our farmers to commit to producing for two new marketing concepts (food clubs, contract-in-advance with institutions) we decided to try a community-project approach. Using USDA statistics on consumer demand for various products, annual consumption rates, and acreage requirements for vegetables and livestock sufficient to feed a town of 500 citizens, we presented the plan to the community at a public meeting on March 2. (Copy of the flip-chart presentation included with supplemental documents.) The eighty respondents to our original poll were contacted directly about the meeting, and a public invitation to the entire town was sent out by the Town Clerk via e-mail.

The response, in absolute numbers, was disappointing. Only fifteen people attended, four representing farms we had been working with for nearly a year.

The response to the plan for creating a community-wide effort that focused on food self-sufficiency was encouraging: most were impressed with the relative ease, in absolute production numbers, with which local farmers could feed a town this size. One existing farm operation could produce all of the potatoes and carrots necessary, a local onion grower could up his production to produce sufficient for the entire town, the two local pasture-fed beef producers could produce enough to meet beef needs, there is already one 10-month hoop house for greens in the town, one or two more would be sufficient. The farmers were very excited about the possibility – more so than they had been at the prospect of growing for food clubs elsewhere.

(Only one negative response was heard: one local landowner, who is very interested in making his land available to lease to new farmers, voiced the opinion that a local foods focus here would make the town appear too “provincial.”)

To introduce the idea to the town at large plans were very quickly created for producing a local Thanksgiving: projections for producing vegetables and turkeys sufficient to feed the entire town were drawn up and the farmers divided up the production responsibilities between them. One took on the potatoes and squash, another the onions and greens, and four producers agreed to raise the turkeys. All agreed on a certain donation level so that the local food pantry would also be stocked with the local products for the holiday.

The plan was brought before the town at the annual Town Meeting later in March with a sign-up sheet where residents could indicate their interest and support. (Copy of hand-out to Town Meeting attendees included with supplemental materials.) There was no commitment required from citizens at that point, merely an indication of interest so that the farmers could begin to plan the summer production schedule. Further meeting schedules and the responsibility of maintaining contact with customers was left with Maine Alternative Ag.

Very sadly, only one couple indicated their support by actually signing up for the project at the Town Meeting.

Why this was so is still being debated. There is some feeling that the idea is just too new for local residents to embrace immediately and that they are suspicious of a “catch” somewhere. Ways to work around the apathy or resistance are still being discussed and we at MA3 believe that the farmers’ enthusiasm – and the empowering realization of their ability to feed their town – will keep this plan alive. We are now talking with our farmers and the new Agricultural Commission of ways to promote the scheme for next year.

Introduction:

Maine Alternative Agriculture Association is a small organization founded in 1999 by farmers and farm veterinarians in an area of central Maine that has ample, exceptional farmland and a dwindling population of family farmers. Its mission is to find marketing outlets for the diverse variety of high-quality farm products that could be produced here, to encourage farmland owners to put their acreage into higher-value crops and to attract a significant number of the next generation of farmers needed to keep this historic agricultural region in productive farming.

The project focused on the community of Starks, in Somerset County, Maine, and neighboring communities of New Sharon, Industry, Mercer, New Portland, Norridgewock, Embden and Cornville, all of which share similar statistics: dwindling populations, closed schools, increasing bedroom community focus, rural poverty with its attendant ills (substance abuse, domestic violence, poor health), and a very high percentage of local real estate in very high quality farmland. Much of the real economic development potential of the area lies in this farmland.

Historically, this area has been the dairy belt of Maine and, during much of the mid-twentieth century, it was the sweet corn canning capitol as well. Today, the dairy farms, once numbering in the hundreds, are down to a handful and the sweet corn canning industry is gone entirely. (Starks was home to a canning plant and 32 dairy farms forty years ago; today there is one dairy farm.)

But, thanks to the many local landowners with generations of farming in their blood, the land here is being kept open, if underused, in hay production. With hundreds of acres of sandy loam, interval land available, the potential for food production – high-value fruit, vegetable and specialty grains – is tremendous. The purpose of this project was to create new venues for consumers to access local products – a food hub, food clubs and a rural retail outlet – while at the same time introducing those landowners to the concept of putting their land into higher use; to attract new farmers to the area to work that land; and to use the facility that Maine Alternative Agriculture Assoc. has been developing for the last several years as a marketing facilitator for those farmers and their products.

We know there is a growing demand for local food and we know we have farmers, and farmland owners, who want their land to stay in agricultural use. Our goal is to somehow help connect those two obviously compatible desires.

Research

Materials and methods:

a. Mass mailing and e-mailing to farmers/consumer groups w/40 mi radius to introduce the project in the spring of 2012;
b. Attendance at local foods organizing meetings (Healthy Communities Partnerships, Sustain Maine, MOFGA) to inform these groups of our project, March – November, 2012;
c. Notices at area health food stores and farm supply stores about the summer speaker series;
d. A series of six public meetings throughout the summer 2012 to bring expert presenters on various aspects of agricultural production in the area that would facilitate increased production specifically for a local consuming audience (soils management for food production, poultry production for local markets, etc., see accompanying materials);
e. Establishment of a model – one farm producing for one local institution;
f. Follow-up meetings with farmers in October to discuss how to specifically apply the information gleaned throughout the summer to specific production possibilities in Starks;
g. Participation in the formation of a local Agricultural Commission in November and December for the purpose of protecting what had come to be recognized as a highly valuable local resource – underused agricultural land in Starks (not part of our original project goals but a successful outcome);
h. Public meetings to create a plan for community food self-sufficiency in Starks based on the production possibilities presented by the summer speakers;
i. Continuing meetings with groups in Farmington and Gardiner to establish the best farm-to-consumer connection for their communities (as the enthusiasm for food clubs waxes and wanes ) and with two hospitals for farm-to-institution plans.

Research results and discussion:

All of the presentations that were put on during the summer of 2012, were directed at farmers but local consumers were also always invited and numbers of them always attended. We felt consumer participation was important for three reasons:
• it gave consumers an appreciation for the level of sophisticated continuing education their local farmers pursue;
• it gave most of the consumers who attended their very first look at how to compare food based on production methods over and above the simple organic versus conventional labels; and
• it gave consumers a much better appreciation of cost differences for food.

The feed-back forms left after the presentations indicated that the consumers in attendance got the point. One lady commented, or asked, “Why has no one ever told me any of this before??” after one of the Fulford talks on nutrient density in plants, how it is achieved, how it is measured and why most commercially grown produce is deficient. She has a child with developmental problems and had been encouraged to attend by a friend who saw one of our public notices. Listening to a talk on the effects of nutritional deficiencies due to forage deficiencies on livestock development (and making her own intuitive leap to how those same food quality deficiencies might have similar effects on human development), was a first-time ever revelation for her.

The presentations by Mark Fulford and Michael McNeill took most of the farmers in attendance to a level of awareness of soil science they had never been exposed to. The science of soil biology, and the practical methods of applying that science to on-farm practices for better yield and higher quality, are applicable to both organic and conventional practitioners. For the conventional farmer, those practices mean a significant reduction in the application of carbon-based inputs for the simple reason that those synthetic chemicals tend to inhibit soil biology. Is a very persuasive approach to sustainability that appeals to a farmer’s sense of “enlightened self-interest” and avoids preaching about environmentalism and good health. Better health all around (economic, environmental and human) may be the outcome but for farmers who must keep the bottom line first and foremost in their minds, a way toward better yields, higher quality, fewer inputs is an attention grabber.

It was a revelation to the many young organic growers who attended the presentations that there is more to feeding soil than applying compost. It is to be hoped that they will benefit from the experience and avoid the production level drop that often occurs in new organic operations around year five.

 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Samples of our flyers, mail-outs, postings, brochures, etc. are submitted as hard copies by mail. We did not use the web other than for e-mail contacts simply because we do not have a web expert in our organization and we did not budget for hiring that sort of expertise.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Outreach to potential consumer/buying clubs and institutional buyers has been conducted as follows:

• Eighty households were contacted directly and polled for their interest in buying local in Starks and a community-wide plan for food self-sufficiency developed and introduced at the annual Town Meeting in March;
• In Bangor and Brunswick we are still working with two major hospitals – St. Joseph’s and Parkview Adventist – to develop models for pre-season production contracts for specific fresh vegetables;
• In Waterville our work with the Sustain Maine group to create a food club which sources from the farmers in our area is continuing.

The first milepost goal indicated on the original grant application was “to create clubs amounting to 100 families committed to purchasing at least one half of their weekly grocery order from local sources…, and to organize six to ten farms within a twenty-mile geographic range to fill those orders.”

We have not achieved that goal but we are still engaged in the process and intend to continue the work we were able to begin thanks to SARE’s support. We do have a minimum of six farms committed to producing more for local consumption although we do not yet have them under contract. Resistance to the absolute obligations of a written contract has a lot to do with the novelty of the idea (unlike large commodity producers the small family farms in this area have no history of producing to contract) and with the fact that they are reluctant to enter into a legal obligation at the same time they are entering into a new direction for their farm. We believe this issue will resolve itself with time; as the farmers become confident of their ability to produce for local demand they will appreciate the security that pre-season production contracts afford them.

As we have held meetings throughout the past year, and as we have attended local foods initiative meetings held by others, a continuing refrain is impossible to miss; at some point in every single one of these discussions, someone will use the phrase “preaching to the choir.” Everyone is struggling with the fact that the majority of the population is not a member of that choir and until many more people are persuaded of the many advantages of supporting a local food system, “local food” will be code for expensive, elitist and not really essential.

Our project, among other accomplishments, has taken the local foods concept directly to a segment of the population – rural, middle-middle class or lower – which is not made up of typical farmers’ market attendees but which does live literally next door to those farmers and attempted to sell them on the local foods concept. It has not been a smashingly successful effort but the ripples are still spreading.

6. Potential Contributions

Compiling the figures on produce needs for a large institution, hospital or school, for example, brings one immediately to a simple reality: in this part of central Maine, the numbers of new farmers coming in who want to produce a diverse collection of high quality food are not sufficient to meet either current or potential demand at the same the direct-marketing-via-farmers’-market approach is reaching a climax. Our new farmers very sensibly set themselves goals for anywhere from two to twenty acres of production – with those working the higher end of that spectrum finding it very difficult to manage – and want to market primarily retail.

We have tried to convince some of them to think of producing more of one crop that they can sell wholesale to an institutional buyer so that we can source a year’s worth of one item from two or three producers.

At the same time, we have approached farmers who work much larger acreages to see whether they would consider breaking into the local foods market by taking some of their land out of animal feed – hay, corn – and put it into a food crop. Again, we are trying to achieve much greater production of a variety of food crops.

Our conclusion is that the larger farmers are absolutely critical to the local foods movement and they are currently virtually uninvolved. Luring them in is as much of a challenge as luring the smaller producers into higher production. Approaching them with a community-oriented challenge worked better than a simple arms-length production proposal.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Compiling the figures on produce needs for a large institution, hospital or school, for example, brings one immediately to a simple reality: in this part of central Maine, the numbers of new farmers coming in who want to produce a diverse collection of high quality food are not sufficient to meet either current or potential demand at the same the direct-marketing-via-farmers’-market approach is reaching a climax. Our new farmers very sensibly set themselves goals for anywhere from two to twenty acres of production – with those working the higher end of that spectrum finding it very difficult to manage – and want to market primarily retail.

We have tried to convince some of them to think of producing more of one crop that they can sell wholesale to an institutional buyer so that we can source a year’s worth of one item from two or three producers.

At the same time, we have approached farmers who work much larger acreages to see whether they would consider breaking into the local foods market by taking some of their land out of animal feed – hay, corn – and put it into a food crop. Again, we are trying to achieve much greater production of a variety of food crops.

Our conclusion is that the larger farmers are absolutely critical to the local foods movement and they are currently virtually uninvolved. Luring them in is as much of a challenge as luring the smaller producers into higher production. Approaching them with a community-oriented challenge worked better than a simple arms-length production proposal.

Future Recommendations

Additional work on this topic is ongoing in our organization and in many others throughout Maine and elsewhere. This project was part of a continuum and while it might have fallen short of its timeline goals, it is still working toward those goals. Encouragingly, we were contacted today (Memorial Day) by Professor Grace Eason from the University of Maine at Farmington (10 miles from Starks), who is planning a series of forums on campus next year to address the public awareness issue. We have recommended that she contact NE SARE for help in putting on these forums and we have offered our experience and time to help with her effort.

Recommendation: We need a massive educational campaign to really push the local foods movement forward. Much of the time spent in developing either food buying clubs or buying relationships with institutional food service providers is spent in reiterating the benefits of local food: to the local economy, to the environment, to the health of the consumer.

We usually do not stress the strategic importance of a local foods system; it sounds too far-fetched. Yet, taking an historical perspective, what could possibly seem more far-fetched than a culture that depends on a daily supply line of food sourced from supplies located thousands of miles away? A simple, one-week break in this supply chain, for whatever reason – natural disaster, interruption of fuel supply – could leave Maine (not to mention the entire New England region) literally without food for most of its citizens.

Nor do we stress the importance of a local foods system for simple health reasons because to do so would force us to face three unpleasant realities:

• Local food costs more and to be worth more, on all levels, it must give the buyer a better product, ie., one of higher-than-average nutritional value;
• “Local” alone means nothing in terms of quality except possibly fresher;
• To suggest that local food is a higher quality means we have to be prepared to prove it by producing it.

Maine Alternative Agriculture is, in its small, rural way, absolutely willing to take on these issues and we are looking forward to continuing the work begun with the help of NE SARE.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.